The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has finally overtaken the Bureau of Indian Affairs in a race to the bottom of the federal bureaucracy. I used to think the BIA, which has mismanaged, or "lost," hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Indian trust funds, deserved the title of Worst Federal Agency. But I changed my mind earlier this month.
The INS overtook the BIA when it renewed the student visas of two suicide pilots who flew commercial airliners into New York's World Trade towers on Sept. 11. It turns out that the two hijackers, Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, had applied for student visas through their flight school, Huffman Aviation International, of Venice, Fla.
"Because of backlogs and an antiquated processing system at the INS," the Washington Post reported, "notification of the (visa) approvals didn't arrive at the ... flight school until March 11," six months after the horrific terrorist attacks that killed more than 3,000 innocent people in New York and Washington.
President Bush ordered an investigation into what he called an "inexcusable" blunder that should serve as a "wake-up call" for leaders of the embattled agency, and the INS inspector general was directed to probe the student visa program to determine why the agency didn't halt delivery of the approval letters and why it took so long to process them.
"This shows once again the complete incompetence of the immigration service to enforce our laws and protect our borders," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., who has co-sponsored legislation to break-up the INS. Another congressman, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., called the INS "the Mickey Mouse Club of federal agencies."
Since no one ever gets fired from the federal government, INS supervisors responded to the crisis by reassigning four senior officials and promising to investigate. But it's going to take more than that to cure what ails this dysfunctional agency.
Last week, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge recommended a merger of the INS -- which includes the Border Patrol -- and the U.S. Customs Service in an effort to secure America's porous borders; the House Judiciary Committee approved the proposal on Thursday. The White House is expected to ask Congress to create a new agency under control of the Justice Department, which already supervises the INS.
Testifying before Congress last week, INS Commissioner James Ziglar, who had no experience on immigration matters prior to his political appointment, said the White House proposal "would change the dynamics" of his own restructuring plan for the agency. According to the Post, the INS has acknowledged that four of the Sept. 11 hijackers had overstayed their visas, and a recent Justice Department review found that even after the terrorist attacks, the agency has been failing to check terrorist watch lists when screening foreign visitors entering the U.S.
As former INS Commissioner Doris Meissner told Foreign Policy magazine, "The INS has a real lack of discipline about the importance of accuracy and handling data with integrity." That says it all.
This isn't just a student visa problem because students account for only 500,000 of 300 million entries into the U.S. each year, some of which are multiple entries by the same person. Once a foreign visitor passes through U.S. Customs, however, he or she is "home free," as nationally syndicated columnist Linda Chavez put it. "He can stay as long as he wants, no matter what his visa says, because the government has no way of tracking him once he's entered the country, and no way of knowing when (or if) he's left," she wrote. Other countries track what happens to foreign visitors, she added. Why can't we?
In the midst of this border chaos, I was surprised when President Bush renewed his call for a new amnesty program for illegal immigrants last week on the eve of his trip to Monterrey, Mexico, to attend a United Nations-sponsored conference on foreign aid. It looks like the president is pandering to Hispanic-American voters in an election year, and reminds me of his father's ill-advised support for Puerto Rican statehood in a similar pitch for Hispanic votes 10 years ago.
What the Bushes apparently don't understand is that many Hispanic Americans oppose illegal immigration and don't give a damn about Puerto Rico. After all, if the Puerto Ricans themselves can't agree on whether to seek statehood --- they're evenly divided on the issue -- then why should the rest of the Hispanic community get involved?
President Bush urged the Senate to act quickly to allow some 200,000 illegal immigrants (including Arabs) who missed out on a previous amnesty program to obtain legal residence in the U.S., saying such action would "demonstrate America's compassion." It would also reward people who broke our laws by sneaking into our country.
Although the Republican-controlled House passed the measure last week, the Democratic Senate isn't as supportive. Powerful Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., thinks senators should have an opportunity to debate and amend the House bill before voting on it, and I agree. With our borders vulnerable to terrorists, this is no time to be passing "open borders" legislation in order to curry favor with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Hispanic voters.
And who would "enforce" this new legislation? You guessed it -- the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. No way!
In fairness to the INS, it should be noted that Congress never gives the agency enough money to carry out its multiple responsibilities. This is partly because of huge campaign contributions that congressmen receive from industries that employ large numbers of illegal immigrants, like agri-business enterprises and Nevada casinos, for example.
Which is another reason to pass real campaign finance reform (not McCain/Feingold), but that's another column.
Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.
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